“I BELIEVE GOD HAS GIVEN YOU A CALL, and if you stay humble, he will use you.”
With these words of encouragement and an arm around the shoulder, Rev. Billy Graham ’43, LITT.D. ’56 made a lasting impression on a 17-year-old Youth for Christ director named Leighton Ford ’52.
Leighton had invited Billy to speak in his hometown of Chatham, Ontario, and that invitation changed the course of his life, as he would later become Billy’s brother-in-law, colleague, and lifelong friend. At the time, Leighton could not have known how God would use that dynamic young man to lead 417 crusades around the globe, becoming in the process one of our nation’s best-known religious leaders.
Early on, Billy and Jean Graham’s mother set her sights on Wheaton College, not only for Billy, but for all their children. “She and Daddy prayed that Billy would go to Wheaton no matter what...They wanted all of us to go,” Jean says.
Fourteen years his junior, Jean wrote in an article for the Kodon, “Billy was really my pal when I was a little tot. I shall never forget the day he left for Wheaton, for I thought my heart would break.”
What does she wish people understood about her famous brother?
“When he got up in the pulpit, Billy was very authoritative in his preaching, but around home, he was gentle and kind.” She remembers he often collected wildflowers for their mother, and when Jean contracted polio at 12, though he and Ruth had just driven back to Western Springs, Illinois, “He came right back to Charlotte on those little two-lane roads to be with me.”
At Wheaton Jean experienced a spiritual rebirth under the teaching of Dr. Harold Ockenga, and also met Leighton, who credits Wheaton with giving him a global vision. After a “disastrous” first date, the pair fell in love simultaneously at a restaurant on North Avenue after attending a church service together in Chicago.
Leighton applied to Wheaton at Billy’s suggestion. During his first month on campus he says, “I went to hear Billy preach—and he preached powerfully in the basement at his church in Western Springs.” That very night in 1949, Billy left for Los Angeles to start what became his first history-making campaign.
A Chaplain to Presidents
The first President who Billy got to know well was Dwight Eisenhower. Leighton recalls, “When he was running for President, Ike told Billy, ‘I feel that God has called me to lead a spiritual revival that we need in this country after all the drain that the war has taken out of us. And I don’t quite know how I’m supposed to do that.’”
The two met frequently, even toward the end of his life. “Billy was with him at Walter Reed Hospital just before the end, and Ike asked him as he was leaving, ‘Tell me one more time, how can I be sure that I’m going to be with the Lord in Heaven?’ So Billy prayed with him,” Leighton says.
Billy has met with every President since that time, and enjoyed close relationships with Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. “I know he had a deep influence on President George W. Bush in terms of his commitment to Christ. He knew them all, but I would say he was closest to President Nixon,” Leighton says. Because of this friendship, Watergate was one of the hardest times Billy had ever personally experienced, according to William Martin’s A Prophet with Honor.
Billy has been criticized at times for stepping into politics. However, Leighton notes, “He always felt he was there mostly to be a pastor...in the tough times and the good ones.”
A Cultural Influence
Very selective about the topics he would address, Leighton says poverty and racism were two cultural conversations over which Billy had an influence. “Billy grew up, of course, in a region where segregation was socially (and sadly, theologically) assumed to be the norm,” he says. “But his convictions changed well before 1954 [when the Supreme Count ruled that segregation was illegal]. Early in the 1950s he refused to preach in segregated arenas and stadiums, even personally taking down the ropes that usually separated the races.”
At times, Billy’s relationships with the Presidents influenced his ministry. Such was the case when President Lyndon Johnson called on the evangelist to help with his “War on Poverty.” As a result, Billy studied every verse in the Bible on the subject. He later credited Johnson with “making him go to the Scripture and preach about God’s concern for the poor,” Leighton says.
A Pastoral Presence
In an era of mega-churches and congregational-growth strategizing, Leighton says that for as much as Billy wanted to reach as many as possible with the gospel message, “From the beginning he was committed not just to getting decisions, but to making disciples.” He partnered with the Navigators ministry, asking key people to lead the follow-up with those who came forward at his crusades. He also held schools of evangelism for church leaders, and the BGEA sent out great quantities of the Living Bible and Bible study materials.
While researching America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2014), Dr. Grant Wacker, professor of church history at Duke, analyzed the letters that came to Billy—sometimes as many as 10,000 a day. “Grant realized these people were writing to Billy as their pastor, with questions not about the big issues of the world, but about their loneliness, depression, or specific family problems," Leighton says. “Though he wasn’t a pastor of a church, he really was a pastor to America.”
He provided spiritual counsel to presidents, shaped the world’s perceptions of evangelists, and unified evangelicals around the globe, yet all the while, several things remained central to Billy Graham’s life and ministry.
Humble to the end, during his last years Billy told Leighton that if he were to preach again, it would be on the theme, “God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Through video, Billy was able to do just that in a 30-minute program called "The Cross" that aired across the country the week of his 95th birthday.
When Leighton asked Billy what he’d like Jean to say at his memorial service, with labored speech, the evangelist replied, “I’d like her to say that I did what I thought I should.”
“And what was that?” Leighton asked.
“Preach the gospel,” Billy answered.
In three words, this was his mission. Leighton believes his brother-in-law would want Wheaton students and alumni to remember that in the same way God called Billy, “God is calling each of them to be what He is shaping them to be.”